Grey’s new Brother ad raises familiar debate

Last week Grey launched its latest work for Brother, an online film in which scanners, printers, hard drives and other bits of office machinery act as an orchestra playing Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ – in similar fashion to the scanners, printers and hard drives which played Radiohead track Nude in James Houston’s brilliant degree show film back in 2008…

screen_shot_20121109_at_13.12.59_0.png - Grey's new Brother ad raises familiar debate - 4851

Last week Grey launched its latest work for Brother, an online film in which scanners, printers, hard drives and other bits of office machinery act as an orchestra playing Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ – in similar fashion to the scanners, printers and hard drives which played Radiohead track Nude in James Houston’s brilliant degree show film back in 2008…



Houston had responded to a Radiohead competition and ‘remixed’ the track Nude, playing all the component parts through an Epson LX-81 dot matrix printer, an HP Scanjet 3c and an array of hard drives. The resulting piece sparked a slew of copycat films recreating perhaps more well known tracks in similar fashion:

A Grey spokesperson originally told CR that Houston had not been contacted regarding the online film but that they “were aware of him and his work on the Radiohead video”. The Grey spokesperson cited other works on YouTube (the creators of which all openly credit Houston’s Radiohead video as their inspiration, incidentally) and said that: “Essentially, our inspiration came from what you’d class as ‘amateur’ attempts, but we wanted to up the scale and scope considerably – hence the orchestra. A load of these videos are really popular online and obviously have a bit of a cult following, so we knew people were interested in this as an art form. We wanted to take it to the next level. As far as we’re aware, nothing has been done on this scale before and it’s the first time the technique has been used in advertising or by a brand. We also felt, clearly, that it was the perfect fit for Brother.”

UPDATE: Grey have just been in touch to tell us that they were mistaken when stating that Houston had not been contacted re making the ad. The agency say they had first tried to contact Houston regarding the project via his YouTube account but say they didn’t hear back. However, Houston was subsequently asked to pitch on it via production company B-Reel, one of three production companies pitching on the project. Houston has recently Tweeted that as part of the pitch he supplied the agency with an outline and a shopping list of parts that they would need to make the ad. CR has contacted Houston and will update the story when we hear from him.

Further update: Brother’s European marketing and communications manager Antony Peart has added this statement in the comments under the ad on YouTube: “Brother is a business that operates to high ethical principles and we are therefore concerned to read some of the views expressed here. This film is part of a campaign that we commissioned from an external advertising agency. We have asked them to investigate the points being raised and to reassure us about the creative process behind it.”

Grey posted a making-of film on YouTube yesterday in which they shed some light on the technical challenges involved in creating what is nonetheless a really well-made commercial:


And so we are back into the same debate that CR’s Eliza Williams summed up so well in her feature entitled The YouTube Dilemma which we published in 2009.

Without rehearsing all the arguments that Eliza covered in her original piece, we do have sympathy with both sides of this old but persistent debate. Grey argue that they were taking a pre-existing and widespread technique (which, in terms of making machines ‘sing’ pre-dates even Houston’s film) onto a new level of sophistication and execution in a different context. In so doing they were acting just like many other ‘creatives’ –  from bands, to photographers, to film directors and artists. Recontextualising, appropriation – it’s the lifeblood of much of our culture. Where would fashion be without plundering the past? Or music?

Advertising in particular has always acted as a magpie, picking up references, concepts and ideas from the wider visual culture. The famous Silk Cut posters of the 80s were inspired by the cut canvas works of Lucio Fontana that Charles Saatchi had in his collection, the 1982 Steve Martin fllm Dead Men Dont Wear Plaid was directly referenced by GGT’s Holsten Pils campaign two years later etc etc etc

But, partly because it employs those references for commercial ends, advertising attracts more criticism for doing so than others engaged in similar activity. There is a double standard at work here. Ad agencies get pilloried for ‘ripping off’ filmmakers while designers who ‘reference’ art in, say, record sleeves, are lauded for their clever use of quotation. But it’s also about the way in which this is done. What infuriates many is the sense that agencies too often neglect to acknowledge sources and too readily claim credit for themselves solely as the originators of an idea or concept. And in many cases, little or nothing is added to the original – it’s just plain copying.

In her original piece, Eliza gave several examples of the ways in which agencies have learned to show more sensitivity and awareness – either acknowledging the source of a concept or technique or involving the originator in their project. This is not without its problems. There will be legal worries about naming ‘inspirations’ specifically and then there is the problem of who to name – was that YouTube video really the first time the idea had been done, or was it merely the latest in a long line of similar ideas stretching back years? These issues notwithstanding, taking their responsibilities seriously and acting like good citizens of the creative world, as many have started to do, surely has to be the way forward for advertising agencies.


Director Chris Cairns
Production company Partizan Darkroom
Producer Bonnie Anthony
Programmers Neil Mendoza, Mark Bereza
Electronic gurus Justin Pentecost, Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith
Agency Grey London
ECD Nils Leonard
Creative director Nick Rowland
Art directors Sam Haynes, Lee Trott
Agency producer Tom Pearce
Post Time Based Arts
Colourist George Kyriacou @ MPC
DOP Denzil Armour Brown
Editing company Trim Editing
Editor Ross Hallard
Music Will Cohen @ Factory Music



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  • “we wanted to up the scale and scope considerably” Poor effort to try distance themselves from the original… He was a student and they are an advertising agency with presumably a big budget.

  • Big Dave

    rip off – they could have easily avoided this by working with James Huston. And one more thing – his work is much better than this – Grey’s piece is badly shot and art directed.

  • gregorylent

    see it so often, artists first, ad agencies second. which is why we love the former, and mock, if not despise, the latter.

  • gregorylent

    very nice post, by the way … well documented, nicely toned. thanks.

  • pathetic

    Utterly pathetic, everyone involved in this should be ashamed with themselves, [deleted by moderator].

    Grey’s piece sounds awful too

  • @matthewnotmatt

    Personally the bit’s I like the most are the close-ups of the wheels, cogs, etc. It would of been nice to see it revel more in the noises, coloured lights from the components, mechanical things moving that it starts to do in the first 30 secs. The orchestra bits are well done but aren’t sufficiently different to hold my interest, but equally I don’t feel in this case they are ripping off other people’s work or ideas.

  • Paul Maguire

    Using terms like ‘reference’ (itself referenced from art criticism) does not exclude commercial agencies from the act of blatant taking. What you have here is not only the taking of an idea (sound created from hacked consumer electronics), but the taking of a treatment (close ups, flat shots, grading).

    If commercial ad agencies could feel shame (never been witnessed), then Grey should be very ashamed indeed.Try creating your own ideas – it’s fun!

    Ultimately I have to say that the end result is very uninspiring – you should have got James to do it. Really.

  • Henry

    “Essentially, our inspiration came from what you’d class as ‘amateur’ attempts, but we wanted to up the scale and scope considerably”

    Whether purposely or not, that is needlessly condescending.

  • MimeArtist

    Better to be amateur than lazy.

  • Tom Tracey

    If thats how noisy brother products are, I think i’ll use an alternative…

  • Great article and some points really well made, but I think it’s a moot point. This is just lousy advertising, I mean, who wants to buy a noisy printer? This ad just sells the sizzle…

  • ian

    i think houston would have done a much better job. authentic.

  • Great overview CR. thanks. similar point covered on our blog here

  • adam

    Its not inspiration when you literally take someone elses work, asking him to pitch on his own IP is also rank. Advertising keeps on doing this thinking they can do what they like because they have such large budgets and as for the comment”our inspiration came from what you’d class as ‘amateur’ attempts”, I would class as amateur the wholesale appropriation of someone elses IP, without a genuine attempt to engage them or evolve the idea on.

    Poor. really poor.

  • Steph Burningham

    I think this is the 4th or 5th piece of printer-based music I’ve come across.

  • Henry Coombes

    I run the studios James is a part of, [deleted by moderator]. Brother your a disgrace if you don’t act immediately to compensate James Houston. It is your responsibility to bring the agency into account. The agency is a parasite off young creative talent

  • A great, well balanced article.

    I have to agree with many other posts — why on Earth was James not invited to direct this? If the agency genuinely wanted to raise the bar he set, he’s naturally the best man to do so. This was a student piece, I’m sure if he had Grey’s man-power and budget at his disposal he would have “up[ed] the scale and scope considerably” himself.

  • Sadly not an unusual position but I wish people wouldn’t hide behind art criticism terms of ‘reference’ or ‘context’ in examples like this. Houston is a designer / filmmaker who clearly made a a very well known homage to technology – where is the re-contextualisation of this in the Brother ad? I actually have some time for the Honda argument with how they referenced and extended the Fischli and Weiss work for “Cog” but this is up there with Mehdi Norowzian versus Guinness blatant copy for “Joy”.

    Last year we were approached by three production houses looking for treatments ‘referencing’ the work of a Brazilian graffiti artist . In each occasion I asked them rather than get us to do a facsimile of his work why didn’t they just commission the artist directly… he would do a better job, might be glad of some commercial work to support his practice and they might get something truly original. Not one of them had thought of doing this and all seemed very uncomfortable taking such a ‘revolutionary’ route. Needless to say we passed on the opportunity and a piss poor copy of his work was duly created by another studio.

    In terms of the Brother ad I see Grey are hiding behind similar weazly, condescending words… and I would like to hear from the director as to how he felt when tasked with ‘referencing’ another filmmakers work so blatantly, whether he was pitching for it via Partizan or not.

    Interesting to see Grey now back-tracking on the claim they hadn’t been in contact with Houston directly, and I’m hoping the heat they will be starting to feel from the client may make them re-consider this cult of ‘trawling You Tube for inspiration’ rather than just doing the trickier (but more rewarding) bit of being creative! What did ad agencies do before You Tube I wonder.

  • Pablo

    It’s a shame to see Grey doing this. Why don’t they think up some of their own ideas? That’s what Brother is paying them to do.

  • Dave Butler

    Just to add to the confusion of thoughts…The Brother ad actually reminded me of something Olivetti did with Tristram Cary, a godfather of electronic music, back in 1973. For the opening of Olivetti’s training center.

    “They commissioned Tristram to compose the music for the film, and wanted it to have the unmistakable feel of Olivetti, so sounds of their business machines were incorporated into the composition.”

  • Alessio Cavallaro

    Let’s not forget Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers (1998), by Thomas McIntosh and Emmanuel Madan aka [The User].

    The first iteration of this work was created nearly a decade before James Houston’s matrix printer remix of Radiohead’s Nude (2007). [The User]’s work was awarded an Honorary Mention, Digital Musics, at Ars Electronica 1999.

  • Mr Trott’s secret shame

    Lee Trott? As in Dave Trotts son? Wow – you should be ashamed.

    Yes it was inspired. That I can believe right up until the point they contacted the guy. That shows lazy creative. [comment deleted by moderator]

    Poor show chaps.

  • lol printers